Women’s History Roundtable, October 2018: Muthulakshmi Reddy and the Making of a Feminist Public by Professor S Anandhi

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Dr. Anandhi’s presentation focussed on Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi, and placed her within the broader context of the creation of a feminist public sphere in late colonial south India. Dr. Anandhi argued that Reddi’s story is an important component of this process, as her name is ubiquitous in Madras, and has been associated with a number of initiatives (many of which do not actually reflect her politics or views). Dr. Anandhi explained that an examination of the mainstream public sphere in the first half of the 20th century in south India does not accurately or adequately represent the political discourse of the times, as it was defined by elite bourgeois men who incorporated women into their political agenda to suit their own vision of reform and Indian revival. This is particularly evident in the matter of women’s education, which ‘progressive’ male leaders felt was the best way to demonstrate that India was a modern nation, ready for self-rule. None of these leaders felt women’s education was an end in itself to benefit women.

 

Given that the public sphere was defined and inhabited by elite men, Dr. Anandhi suggested the rise of a “counter” public sphere during the same era – a feminist one, created and defined by women. Many women’s organisations gained prominence during the 1920s, but the earliest feminist organisation in India was one co-founded by Reddi in 1917: the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). Dr. Anandhi therefore noted that by studying the life-story of Reddi, we could gain some insights into the nature of this alternative public space defined by women, particularly because Reddi and others shifted the debates about progress and nationalism by extending it into the domestic sphere, so women could relate to these questions more effectively.

 

At the centre of Dr. Anandhi’s presentation was a reading of Reddi’s autobiography, which was published in 1929. Dr. Anandhi suggested that Reddi’s autobiography was not simply a story of her life, but a more political manifesto of her ideas. Though Reddi was fortunate to have the support of her father in her educational endeavours, she found schools and colleges were male-dominated institutions, with policies that often ended up preventing women from accessing education. In her autobiography, she suggests that women themselves should marshall forces to help educate each other, with more educated women sharing their knowledge. Reddi’s autobiography thus calls for the creation of a collective female public sphere based on the shared experience of being denied access to male-dominated public spaces.

 

Dr. Anandhi went on to discuss Reddi’s interest in the uplift of Devadasis, for which she is probably best remembered today. Though other sources tell us of Reddi’s own personal investment in the community, Dr. Anandhi noted that there was nothing in her autobiography – an otherwise candid document – to tell the reader about it. Instead, she seems more interested in talking about her own life story.

 

In detailing Reddi’s activities for the uplift of women through the WIA, Avvai Home, and the national movement; Dr. Anandhi noted that all her political work was based on helping to improve the status of Indian women. For example, Reddi made several suggestions to the Simon Commission about how to improve women’s access to education as well as what the curriculum should consist of in order to create a class of educated and employable women. Dr. Anandhi noted that this reframing of the public sphere by a ‘politics of care’ allowed more women to participate through the framework of ‘helping’ their countrywomen access education and healthcare.

 

Questions and discussion after Dr. Anandhi’s presentation revolved around Reddi’s family support; her sometimes contentious relationship with the Congress party; her exchanges with Gandhi, and her role in creating transnational feminist connections.

 

This report was compiled by Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan

 

Women’s History Roundtable July 2018: Gulika Reddy on Gender and Activism in Schools and Beyond

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Our WHRT speaker on July 14th was Gulika Reddy. Gulika Reddy is a human rights lawyer and also the founder of Schools of Equality, a nonprofit which runs programmes in schools, encouraging students to think about equality and diversity.

 

Gulika began by tracing her own interest in human rights law, particularly women’s rights. In her early years in the profession, she often heard certain lawyers justify domestic abuse and ask victims to let it go, in order to “save the institution of marriage”. This discourse brought home the importance of women’s rights and discrimination and violence against women. After regular interaction in the social justice sector, she started Schools of Equality to provide experiential and activity based learning to help increase awareness on gender based discrimination and violence.

 

Gulika then introduced the audience to two activities that they used in schools.

 

In the first activity, the audience was asked to talk about what words came to their minds when they heard the words “masculinity” and “femininity”. The responses ranged from muscular, bold, strong, assertive to fragile, lucky and non vulnerable for the former; and dainty, shy, fragile, passive, hysterical, emotional and nurturing for the latter.

 

For the next activity, the audience was asked to get up and walk around and find a partner, and ask and answer the following questions:

  1. What is one thing which is usually ascribed to your gender, which you actually like doing?
  2. What is one thing which is usually ascribed to your gender, which you dislike doing?
  3. What is one thing which is not ascribed to your gender, which you wish you could do without being judged?

 

The responses ranged from nurturing children, housework, dressing up and cooking (for the first two questions), and sitting in a particular way, having to justify things for the last question. The audience was then asked how such issues could be combated. Two members shared experiences of how they broke such stereotypes, by calling out rigid and sexist office rules, and by teaching their own children and family members about problematic mindsets.

 

Gulika continued the session by talking about her work at the schools they interacted with. Schools of Equality does sessions for children, parents and teachers; and she spoke about the different issues and situations that crop up while interacting with each target group. She noted that for children below a certain age, they mostly did sessions on bullying; while for older children they focused on sex education and gender identity awareness. SoE started off with two schools and did a baseline survey, after which they started taking workshops to different places; and now they operate in both Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

 

Gulika went on to emphasise the importance of having conversations with people about issues of gender, regardless of how averse they may be to the topic. She talked about how sometimes in classrooms, when students open up about certain issues they’ve faced, their peers learn a lot more from the sharing of experiences rather than textbook material on awareness. She then opened the floor for questions, and had small discussions on issues of scaling, combining training teachers and teaching students, and the relevance and utility of law in the battle for social justice. The session ended with some informal discussions within the group.

 

This report was compiled by Malavika Ravi. 

Women’s History Roundtable: June 2018 Bader Sayeed on “Gender Justice and Personal Law”

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Bader Sayeed is an eminent lawyer who practices at the Madras High Court. She is also the founder of the NGO Roshni.

Ms. Sayeed spoke about some recent developments in Muslim Personal Law, devoting considerable time to the question of the abolition of the triple talaq. However, she made it very clear that legislation (however progressive) could only be effective with thoughtful implementation as well as a focus on changing societal mindsets. At a time when people in power can make inflammatory statements about religion and gender (including rape threats), legislation is but the first step.

Ms. Sayeed, in fact, was of the opinion that the Indian constitution was an excellent one, and emphasised equality and secularism. However, in reality, the spirit of the constitution is being betrayed everyday by the arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions imposed by those in positions of power (for example, the ban on beef). Noting the treatment meted out to Dalits in particular, Ms. Sayeed wondered where the principle of liberty and dignity of the individual had been lost since the writing of the Constitution.

Being an experienced lawyer, Ms. Sayeed also admitted the difficulty of fighting injustice in India – even in the courts. For example, while she obtained an injunction overturning the validity of certificated of divorced issued by Qazis, she was distressed to note that these certificates still continued to be considered valid in various communities. In this way, Ms. Sayeed drove home the point that legislation can only go so far in improving the rights and status of women and minorities in India.

Ms. Sayeed concluded by noting that while Indian legislation contains adequate protection for women and minorities, it is necessary for society (especially those in power) to change their mindset and espouse a more secular attitude towards our countrymen and women. In addition, Ms. Sayeed believed that the Constitution of India is still sound, and there is no need for additional legislation to improve upon in. What is necessary is for more Indians to read and understand the Constitution of India.

 

This report was compiled by Prajnya’s interns, Athmika and Varsha

Revived! Women’s History Roundtable Series: Post-colonial India’s Women Doctors

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On Saturday, October 14th, 2017, we revived our Women’s History Roundtable Series which had fallen by the wayside because of our struggles finding a venue. We decided to go back to our original ways–to find a cafe and we picked Writer’s Cafe to try.  Archana Venkatesh, veteran volunteer, doctoral candidate at Ohio State University and Saakshi Fellow, opened the fourth series and will coordinate for a year.

Women's History Roundtable Series (2)

Private Lives, Public Work:
Women Doctors at work and home in Post-Colonial India

Archana Venkatesh

Abstract:

Women doctors in post-colonial India were an integral part of the developmental regime envisaged by policy makers in the field of public health, especially in efforts to control overpopulation and regulate maternal and infant health in a newly independent nation. In this paper, I examine the life and work of women doctors in post-colonial India using data from twenty oral history interviews conducted with women doctors aged 75-95 years, active in the medical profession from 1950 to 1990 collectively. Oral history interviews provide a counter narrative to the ‘official discourse’. I demonstrate that while the state encouraged women to embrace the medical profession by deploying tools such as affirmative action and scholarships, this attitude did not always permeate the home and the workplace. Many women doctors note that medical colleges and hospitals were highly gendered spaces, something that was particularly apparent during the process of selecting specializations – many were shepherded into the ‘feminine’ fields of obstetrics and gynecology, or pediatrics. However, any expression of dissatisfaction was deemed to undercut their goal of ‘serving the new nation’ by participating in the medical profession. This paper examines how women doctors negotiated competing demands, between national service and individual goals, and between professional responsibilities and domestic expectations. Using oral history as a method, this paper sheds light on the ways in which everyday practitioners, i.e. women doctors, negotiated their participation in the creation and evolution of the developmental state in post-colonial India.

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